Redesigning Life

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John Parrington’s engaging and thoughtful book explains the science behind recent rapid advances in genetic engineering that mean it is increasingly possible to enact precise changes at a molecular level.

Genetic engineering tends to evoke images of glow in the dark bunnies, super tomatoes, or for me, the vast, rectangular football player in the novel Red Dwarf who has been engineered to be the exact size of the goal. But genetic engineering has been responsible for medical treatments that are now commonplace.

For example, until a method of producing human insulin in bacteria was developed, people with diabetes were reliant on pig insulin, which caused adverse immune reactions in some diabetics. Most striking is the development of genome editing where DNA code can be cut and pasted using “molecular scissors”.

In comparison to traditional genetic engineering, genome editing is much faster and cheaper and, when combined with other advances, has the potential to accelerate change in multiple aspects of human life. Already, “organoids” composed of structures from human organs including the brain have been grown in culture with a view to producing organs for transplant and mapping the progress of disease.

Parrington’s clear descriptions and diagrams combined with interesting snippets from the narrative and biography of scientific discovery make the science behind these developments readily accessible. Their relevance to our everyday lives is also highlighted with Parrington continually drawing connections between advances in the lab and their real world application.

Animal lovers may be disconcerted by the parade of animal experiments described, but Parrington carefully argues exactly why animal models from nematode worms to primates are necessary to ensure the safety and efficacy of medical treatments.

However, the prospect of treating mental health problems with gene therapy, while intriguing, raises concerns. As Parrington identifies, the genetic basis for mental health problems is often unclear. But there is potential for increasing the activation of “feel-good” neurotransmitters such as dopamine with gene therapy as a means of combatting conditions such as depression.

But, as discussed by Parrington, there is a danger that, much like pharmacological treatments, the reduction of unhappy thoughts on an individual basis will mask the very real social causes of mental health issues. This discussion might have been enhanced by consideration of whether certain conditions such as autism are in fact “disorders” rather than states of neurological difference only unacceptable in the current social environment.

Similarly, in the detail of how crops could be modified to withstand more extreme conditions created by global warming, the question of how to prevent the further destruction of the planet’s ecosystem by rampant capitalism was rather lost. These rapid advances in genetic engineering are undoubtedly fuel for controversy and heated debate. As Parrington states unequivocally, these discussions are crucial, and they must take place with an informed understanding of the limits and possibilities of the technology currently available.
Redesigning Life is an excellent place to begin this process.